Shotgun Players’ Great Adventure

by Jean Schiffman

Shotgun Players challenges itself with yet another innovative theatrical offering.

To herald its 25th anniversary this year, Berkeley’s intrepid Shotgun Players embarked upon a great adventure that, according to some of its actors, was the biggest challenge of their lives.

Five plays opened in staggered succession, with openings stacking up on top of plays already underway: first, the Mark Jackson-directed “Hamlet,” then the West Coast premiere of British playwright Penelope Skinner’s provocative “The Village Bike” (an offbeat comedy in which an unhappy wife loses her bearings; directed by founding artistic director Patrick Dooley), then Heidi Schreck’s emotionally involving “Grand Concourse” (Joanie McBrien, director), following by brilliant local writer Christopher Chen’s metatheatrical “Caught” that begins, or so it seems, with a Chinese dissident artist discussing his work (Susannah Martin, director) and finally the Edward Albee classic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” also directed by Jackson.

Beth Wilmurt as Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolff

In a twist, seven actors form the ensemble for “Hamlet”—but each is cast in all roles. At every performance, the actors pick character names out of a hat and play whichever role they’ve randomly selected. So, for example, company veteran Beth Wilmurt (who also appears as Martha in “Woolf”) went five weeks without drawing the Danish prince but at one point played Gertrude four nights in a row. Imagine, says Jackson, seeing a male Ophelia, a female Hamlet (it was especially moving, he says, to watch Cathleen Riddley, a black woman in her 50s, play the title role) or the king and queen as two men.

The company had produced Tom Stoppard’s trilogy “The Coast of Utopia” a few years back, casting a sole ensemble to appear in each play of the trilogy across three successive years, then ultimately staged all three together in marathon performances. Dooley wondered what the company could do to equal that excitement. So he upped the ante: Now all five plays, including “Hamlet,” are onstage in a varying weekly schedule, with a core ensemble of 12 re-appearing across the repertory.

Some actors are in three plays, a few are in two, a few in just one—and one actor, Megan Trout, is in four. “When is a play ever done?” asks Dooley rhetorically. “In Europe shows run for decades. It’s been eye-opening how a play seasons over time.”

The technical aspects of such an undertaking were enormous: fundraising to hire extra crew to handle the workload; negotiations with Actors’ Equity for a suitable contract for the actors, most of whom were rehearsing and/or performing year-round; the logistics of storing multiple sets and costumes in the small space and more.

“This is a very Shotgun thing to do,” observes Jackson. “Shotgun has always been a theater in which community is not a buzzword, it’s an actual thing.

“Audiences can develop a deeper relationship with actors, and actors can get to know the audience,” he continues. In the initial run of “Hamlet” last spring (“itself a kind of mini-rep,” he says, “an exhaustive but informative way to start a season”—every actor had to learn every role), many audience members attended multiple times; one woman came 18 times and kept a chart of the actors she’d seen in the various parts. Repeat attendees for all five plays are expected in December. “Seeing a production repeatedly is like getting to know your favorite book or wine or city or person,” muses Jackson. “The more time spent with them, the more you can appreciate their complexities.”

Beth Wilmurt as Gildenstern, El Beh as Hamlet, Nick Medina as Rosencrantz in Hamlet

For audiences and artists alike, the experience is unique. Jackson
describes directing “Hamlet” at the beginning of the season and “Woolf” at the end as “baptism by fire.” In early “Hamlet” rehearsals, he found that giving notes to seven actors is seven times longer when you have to give them for multiple characters. “How many notes can a brain handle?” he wonders. “At a certain point I stopped giving them.” 

Indeed, how many notes, how much blocking, how many lines can an actor absorb? Yet as with the audience, for the actors, too, it’s an opportunity to deepen their understanding of their character—or, in this case, their characters. Says Dooley, the actors became acutely aware of their capabilities and limitations. The ensemble, which ranges in age from late 20s to mid-50s, discovered that, being at the theater up to 11 hours several times a week, there was simply no time for “navel-gazing.” They had to make strong choices every day and just get the job done: “I think it’s made the work better, less precious,” says Dooley. “You go with your gut.

“It’s like they’re in puberty, the rate of growth is so fast,” he adds. “They’ve been pushed to the breaking point and found other layers they didn’t know they had… . Even Megan, who you’d think would never run out of energy, said, ‘I’ve hit the wall.’”

For company member Megan Trout, in her late 20s, this has been an intense learning experience unlike any other, and one she was thrilled to accept. She plays a young woman in “Grand Concourse,” a tortured soul who volunteers at a Bronx soup kitchen, “a complicated role… for a long time I struggled with not liking her. But when you’re playing someone, you have to be one with the character.” As Honey in “Woolf,” she sees the faculty wife as complex and mysterious, often written off as ditsy and silly “but she’s so not.” And in “The Village Bike,” she digs deep into the troubled young housewife. Of “Hamlet,” she says, “There’s a special kind of terror and honor in drawing Hamlet.

“I definitely had trouble,” she continues, “not so much with memorizing but [with] keeping with my usual standard of rigor that I’ve taken for granted. It was a little alarming to see that shift in myself…. The only thing that can get you through this,” she adds, “is to focus on your scene partners.” Her big takeaway: She no longer fears failing onstage. Now more than ever, it’s about going out there and “being present.” She considers the December rotating rep to be “the most important last step in this crazy experiment.” Says Dooley, of future possibilities for rep: “I’m almost sure we’re not done with it.”

Nov. 25 → Jan. 22

Shotgun Players

Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley

(510) 841-6500/